Sunday, September 30, 2007

Surfing, Jane Watts and polls

To Cornwall to celebrate my mother's 76th birthday. My brother and I went surfing with her in the morning - not every 76-year-old does that. Then drove up with my sister to the 25th Wedding Anniversary party of two very dear friends. This was preceded by an organ recital by the brilliant Jane Watts, who had played at their wedding. This included a couple of pieces by William Lloyd Webber (very well played but lightweight), an outstanding performance of Bach's Prelude & Fugue in G BWV541, and a haunting Elegie by Flor Peeters. I could have done without the Morceau de Concert of Alexander Guilmant which, although played very well, simply does not make the grade musically (it even occurred to me it could be an elaborate musical joke). However her 3 movements from Widor's Organ Symphony No 5 were outstanding, even though the final Toccata brought a lot of "we know this" chatter from the audience.

William Hague in characteristically witty and pithy form: "Clearly they're thinking in the Labour Party that if they don't have an election soon, then Brown will be rumbled, and people will be fed up with him in very short order". and Vikki Woods in the Telegraph seems spot on as well. Cameron, in his interview with the Sunday Times, sums up the difference between Labour and Conservatives thus: " we believe in giving people the freedom and control over their lives, and labour believe in top-down, state control."

The Opinion Polls may be bad, but in 35 council by-elections since Brown took over as prime minister, the Tories have a 9% lead over Labour. This compares BTW with an average opinion poll deficit of 5%.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Enjoy thy streame, O harmless fish

Found in A Book of Britain by John Hadfield, and attributed to John Wolcot Works 1801

Enjoy thy streame, O harmless fish;
And when an angler, for his dish,
Through gluttony's vile sin
Attempts, a wretch, to pull thee out,
God give thee strength, O gentel trout
To pull the raskall in!

John Hadfield was Editor of books like The Shell Guide to Britain which had a foreword by JB Priestley.

Complicite, Prudence, Iraq, Book

Went to Complicite's A Disappearing Number which is a fascinating though flawed work, brilliantly performed. One of our guests was a Maths Prof with a strong interest in String Theory so he was able to confirm my impression that the maths was fine, but one of the central characters was a "futures dealer" who apparently knew no maths and was also mysteriously responsible for advising BT to close a call centre ... er?! The disparate threads were all drawn together but in a rather contrived way, and the central relationship didn't quite convince. But it was a magnificent conception, and well worth seeing.

Gerald Baker is spot-on in The Times about the abandonment of Prudence. I still don't believe Brown will call an election this year though. And the mood does appear to be turning against him. (See the scathing piece in The Economist - also in actual by-elections on Thursday the Conservatives seem to have the national equivalent of a 6% lead) But we shall see.

Coalition casualties in Iraq continue to fall - average under 2/day for the last 2 weeks, and in the last 7 days only 5 "hostile" deaths. Long may this continue.

Our joint article should be published by Christmas, and both Yale and CUP are very interested in a book based on it. I hope I shall be able to enthuse my co-author - I hope to go and see him after my trip to Harvard next month.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Christian Aid should keep away from dubious politics

I'm disappointed with Christian Aid getting into political advertising for an 80% cut in UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions. We have in the past been assiduous collectors of money for Christian Aid. But I'm very sorry to say that, in my view, placing advertisements urging people to lobby MPs to reduce UK carbon emissions by 80% is a ludicrous abuse of Christain Aid's moral authority and a highly questionable use of your funds.

The UK presently accounts for about 2.2% of global CO2 emissions. Given the rapid rise of China and India, if we don't reduce ours at all we'll be about 1.5% by 2050. If we cut ours by 60% we'll be about 0.8% and if we cut them by 80% we'd be 0.4%. The difference that a 0.4% reduction in global CO2 emissions would make is impossible to measure. However the extra cost - of making the UK's emissions one fifth of their present value rather than 40%, would be enormous. Much more than the total budget of DfID. Does Christian Aid really think it would be a good tradeoff of development money?

No doubt if every country in the world cut their emissions by 80% this would make a difference, but there is no possibility whatsoever of this happening, and for the UK to adopt such a target unilaterally would offer no incentive for anyone else to do so.

So basically they are getting involved in a political campaign based on scientific and economic illiteracy and political naiveté. The fact that their board consists of worthies with little or no business of scientific background probably explains why they nodded this through. Christian Aid should stick to their charitable purposes and not engage in this type of politicking - otherwise people will complain to the Charity Commission, and rightly so.

Of course Global Warming is a serious problem, but we need serious steps towards a solution, not exaggerated gesture politics.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Benn, Butterfield, Prospect, Amazon Vine and GF Watts

For once I agree with Tony Benn: "If tidying up involves tearing up the British constitution, it's a very interesting definition." Despite the stonking lead in the opinion polls, Brown has serious problems ahead. Went to the Sarah Butterfield exhibition at the Indian Consulate - and indeed bought one of her watercolours. A number of leading Tories were there - no signs of panic at all and they understand that this is to be avoided. Also met John Major who is as charming as his reputation suggests.

The latest issue of Prospect contains a fascinating article by Bartle Bull arguing that "With most Sunni factions now seeking a deal, the big questions in Iraq have been resolved positively. The country remains one, it has embraced democracy and avoided all-out civil war. What violence remains is largely local and criminal" Obviously I'm no expert, but I find this analysis quite plausible. And Coalition Military Fatalities continue their downward trend, now at 2.35 per day which is their lowest level for 12 months. Perhaps even more significantly, September is the first month this year where the fatality rate is lower than the same month last year.

Should also mention the Society of Authors AGM with an interesting debate on The Future of Bookselling, including the MD of Waterstones and the Book Buying Director of Both of them seem v good guys and serious about books. Amazon is launching a service called vine where they get their top reviewers to review proof copies before they come out. Nice Emma Darwin is off to Spain to the launch of the Spanish translation of The Mathematics of Love. I got helpful but conflicting advice about CUP vs Yale UP. And also met Rosalind Frankin's niece, Veronica Frankin Gould, who has written a biography of GF Watts.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Cambridge and Brown

Daughter was 16 so had little family dinner at The Ritz on the day, and party with 15 of her friends at home on Sat. They all had great fun and luckily one of the mums and an old friend from Church came round so that we were occupied. Sunday to Trinity for an Alumni Lunch. Martin Rees in excellent form and they have secured a major coup in the area of Science and Public Policy which is about to be announced. V interesting talk by Si Baron-Cohen on Do hormones in the womb cause changes in the brain? (in children, not in the mothers) although most of the correlations only seem weekly significant. He was too modest to plug his excellent book The Essential Difference so I did for him. I also found Atheism and Theism (first published in 1996, 2nd edition 2003) by JJC Smart and JJ Haldane in Heffers which is an interesting precedent to our proposed book.

Very encouraging developments at Church, they are going ahead with their extension. I also find that the wonderful Tamsin Greig gave a talk there, and is expected to give another one.

Will Gordon Brown call an election this year? No, but he will use election speculation to try to destablise the Tories. Let's hope, not least for the sake of democracy in the UK, that they hold their nerve. If it's true that GB wants to crush all opposition.... Although the tenor of comments on the BBC Have Your Say on this are, to say the least, not entirely consistent with the Glorious Father of the Nation image.

PS: Brown's speech is widely read as an attempt to be "blue" - and an outbreak of blue tongue disease is confirmed. Will the cartoonists pick this up?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Politics, and Polkinghorne

Polls still show a 5% Labour lead (I keep a track of the Weighted Moving Average which avoids daft headlines on a single poll). Brown is very skilful but he has had some very narrow squeaks. The Floods, Foot and mouth and Northern Rock were all in a sense caused by Brown (cutting flood defense budgets, starving the labs of money so they couldn't afford proper bio-defenses, and splitting responsibility for Bank Supervision) and yet he seems to have emerged unscathed - partly because parliament is in recess.

Very much enjoying John's autobiography From Physicist to Priest

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sterling performance from Mervyn King

A sterling performance from Mervyn King. Some of the interesting nuggets: "One of the interesting aspects of this crisis is that all the players have acted completely rationally, given the position they were put in." This so often happens across a variety of fields, and has been one of my favourite ideas for years. He's also completely right that: "Unless we have now a serious reform of deposit insurance, of the administration of banks, of the clash between the wish for transparency of companies to their shareholders, the tension of that and how it applies to banks when they're in difficulty and the length of time it takes to deal with transfer of ownership of banks. Those four things are fundamental. If any one of those had not been there, there wouldn't have been the problem with the Lender of Last Resort operation. It required all four to be there to prevent us acting in the way we wanted to do."

Earlier I tried to post the following to Robert Peston's blog: "It seems from your latest that the Governor was behaving exactly correctly. To have intervened in the markets so that Northern Rock was not punished for its reckless strategy would have guaranteed a far bigger disaster in the future. And it is almost certainly illegal under EU Law for the Bank to give what amounts to a subsidy to Lloyds TSB and the Northern Rock shareholders. Now there can be a fair auction for Northern Rock with all the bidders on a level playing field. It would be a tragedy if King were forced to resign over this." The BBC server kept crashing, alas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Polkinghorne and God at Work

Polkinghorne's Autobiography comes out tomorrow. I should get a review copy soon.

Enjoying God at Work by Ken Costa. Delicious story of Sir Seigmund Warburg whose secretary burst into his office saying that "The Chancellor of the Exchequer is on the phone, he says it is urgent". Warburg replied "Urgent for whom, for him or for me?"

Quite amusing parody of Dawkins on YouTube here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Newspapers beginning to get near the Dawkins Northern Rock connection

Interestingly the newspapers are beginning to pick up (independently of course) part of the issue I raised about the Chairman of Northern Rock. Today's FT says, under Directors not quite ready to take a bow "investors will also be trawling through Matt Ridley's resume. The 49-year old chairman of Northern Rock has a doctorate in zoology ... he also has impeccable northern northern credentials". The Guardian says, more bluntly, "Step one ought to have been to order Northern Rock to find itself a proper chairman over the weekend. The current incumbent, Matt Ridley, is a science writer whose chief qualification seems to be the fact that his grandfather once held the post." Let's see what happens. So far I can't find anyone else making the Dawkins connection.

Dawkins meanwhile tries to defend the his indefensible ignorance of theology with a letter in The Independent responding to the favourable review of Darwin's Angel. His "argument" has been that there is no point in studying Theology because (almost certainly, according to Dawkins) God does not exist. Well perhaps it is intellectually OK to disbelieve in God without studying Theology, but not to write a whole book about the subject. Even in science we often study things that may or may not exist: for a long time it was very unclear whether quarks existed, and it is still completely unclear whether the "strings" (or "branes") of String Theory (or M-Theory) exist. However it would be ludicrous to write a book denouncing String Theory (like Not Even Wrong without having studied the theory and being familiar with the underlying physics and mathematics. Not for nothing is the publisher of The God Delusion the publisher of that other masterpiece of garbled nonsense and pseudo-learning, The Da Vici Code.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Northern Rock, the NHS, UK Universities, Sailing

Liam Halligan in The Telegraph is basically right on three counts - Northern Rock (Robert Peston continues to be on the button about this) the NHS (and its "National Programme for IT") and UK Universities. The last, a nugget, is "During a recent visit to one of our leading universities, a notice board caught my eye. Pinned on it was the student list for “Advanced Quantitative Techniques for Finance”. Every single name was Chinese.“Oh great,” I said to the professor hosting me. “An exchange programme. How many British youngsters have gone to Beijing University in return?” My academic friend gave me a grave, almost sorrowful look. “Oh no,” he said. “It’s no exchange. Only Asian students apply for that course. British students say it’s too hard”.

Back from sailing - last of the season with Daughter. Strong and gusty winds and a fair amount of waves - at the beginning of the season we couldn't have handled it but now it was OK.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Masterly understatement on Northern Rock - Danger Selfish Genes at Work

Northern Rock's announcement is a masterpiece of understatement: "In light of the continuing extreme conditions in global liquidity, Northern Rock plc (Northern Rock) takes the opportunity to update the market on its trading performance and outlook." Or, as The Times and other newspapers put it "Northern Rock is bailed out by Bank of England". There are some very sound people on the Northern Rock board - though it is interesting to reflect that the Chairman, Matt Ridley, is one of Dawkins's most prominent supporters, co-edited "How a Scientist Changed the way we Think" and is thought to have written the review in The Economist which was the only serious magazine to give TGD an un-qualified approval. Come to that, Jeff Skilling the CEO of Enron was also a great fan of Dawkins. There is no suggestion, of course, of any fraud involved in Northern Rock, and they seem to have avoided these Conduits. Their shareholders funds are £2.3bn and their assets include £1.4bn of derivatives and £97bn of loans and advances to customers.

Charles Pretzlik in his FT Blog ("If Northern Rock is not bust it is only because of the Bank of England and the government don’t want it to be. Call it what you like, but this bank ran out of money and can no longer fund all its liabilities") and Willem Buiter's ("It is by no means obvious that Northern Rock ... suffered just from illiquidity rather than from the threat of insolvency. The organisation has followed an extremely aggressive and high-risk strategy of expansion and increasing market share, funding itself in the expensive wholesale markets for 75% of its total funding needs, and making mortgage loans at low and ultra-competitive effective rates of interest.") are really damning.

The fundamental responsibility for effective management of risk and not pursuing an over-aggressive strategy rests with the board, and if a Chairman believes that his customers, staff and investors are really "lumbering robots" and has no respect for the traditional morality of "faith-heads" or spiritual understanding this is hardly conducive to a humble and responsible attitude. Let's see what happens. So far the shares are "only" down by 31% on the day, wiping a "mere" £1bn or so off the value. I doubt whether we have heard the last of this...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Darwin's Angel and the NHS

Frantically busy but I thought I had to summarise Darwin's Angel. Having failed to get the article deleted one of the Dawkins Defenders (or the Dont Doubt Dawkins brigade) has tried to suggest the article is biased, but gives no coherent reasons. I see that is discounting The God Delusion by 80% - basically selling it as cheap as chips probably becasue they have over-ordered.

Sir Derek Wanless
has rather let the cat out of the bag with his NHS review. Note The Times's dry remarks: "Sir Derek would have liked the Government to have commissioned the review, but it showed no enthusiasm for doing so. The King’s Fund stepped in, enabling him to produce this report." As Bosanquet says: "the NHS is a rambling nationalised industry in which much is spent on obsolescent services and the scarce time of experienced professionals is used poorly"

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Brahms, Postgenomic Musings and careers of Medics

Remarkable Prom last night - James Levine and the BSO. They gave the UK Premiere of a new work by Eliot Carter - still alive at 99 - his musical denunciation of "Utopia" chimes well with John Gray's Black Mass - which I still haven't finished. Then Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra - also commissioned for the BSO. Finally Brahms 1 - which I love. Although the tempi in the last movement were odd, I was moved to tears by the emergence of the final theme.

V interesting set of "Postgenomic Musings" by Massimo Pigliucci. Also v interesting article in Science online about the departure of scientist/physicians from research.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Darwin's Angel and others

Heard the discussion on the Today programme yesterday betwen Dawkins and John Cornwell and bought and read his delightful Darwin's Angel. It is witty, intelligent, erudite and imaginative, and identifies several important problems with Dawkins' positions. Unfortunately there are a couple of minor errors (Rosalind Franklin was not overlooked for the Nobel Prize because she was a woman, but because she was dead). Also read Anthony Kenny's Presidential Annual Lecture to the Royal institute of Philosophy, which contains a critique of Dawkins. Fascinating stuff and very germane to our article and Book.

Worrying article about how mosques and Islamic seminaries in the UK are increasingly being taken over by the Deobandi's.

As for Kate McCann being a suspect in Madeliene's death - preposterous. Presumably the Portugese tabloid that made these allegations put the Police up to it to get them off the hook.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Polkinghorne Autobiography, Death in Iraq and elsewhere, Sacred Values

John Polkinghorne's autobiography will be published this month - SPCK have sent me a cover photo but I don't have purchase details yet.

Sadly the abnormally low Iraq Casualties seems to have been caused in part by a delay in reporting, and in fact instead of 5 death-free days there have been just two. Still the rate is down from 2.8 to 1.7 and if this continues that's 30 young men whose lives are preserved.

An e-correspondent asks how the death of a friend's husband, killed on his scooter going to work after just 7 months of marriage, can be compatible with a loving God. Well we simply don't know all the answers, and any death of a loved one is a tradgedy. But philosophically, if you are going to have love and death you will have suffering, and if there is danger in the world then people who are loved will be killed. Perhaps the reason Death entered human life when Sin did is that with complete faith in God and a loving union with Him we'd regard the few years we are parted from those we love when they die as a short intermission in the eternity we'll spend together? But all this "philosophical logic" does not mitigate the grief and pain - I'd be devastated if this happened to me and I still mourn my father who died in 1985.

Reading Paul's Letter to Titus. What on earth do the "Inclusive Church" people make of it? I suppose they just ignore it.

There is also a very impressive report in Science by Axelrod and others about the effect of sacred values on negotiation.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Politics, Dawkins, Iraq, Polkinghorne

Magnus Linklater in The Times says he is an atheist but repelled by the shrill tone of Dawkins and Toynbee. Actually the "arguments" that Dawkins makes are incredibly feeble - all it boils down to is that it is logically possible that God does not exist and we all knew that. You cannot conclusively "prove" that Other Minds exist, but it is not at all irrational to believe they do. Their shrill language is because they can't engage in reasoned debate about religion and have to shout and attack straw men (see Terry Eagleton's wonderful review of "The God Delusion"). As for that poll, it was so online and there are a lot of sad atheists online - it is not representative of the general public.

Meanwhile another depressing rant from the appalling "Death Wish Tory" Simon Heffer.

However (unremarked by the media) the death rate amongst coalition troops in Iraq has fallen dramatically - 5 days into Sept and only one fatality, compared to the 14 we would have expected if the rate in August had continued. In fact as far as I can see we haven't had a period of 5 days with only one fatality ever. It's too much to hope that this lull will continue indefinitely, but it does look as though the steady fall in casualty rates month-by-month since May will continue, and that Sept will be the lowest this year. Let us hope and pray this is the case.

Various interesting Q&A updates on the Polkinghorne site BTW.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Polls and statistics: God, Politics, Iraq - and the Alexandria Process

John Humphries trumpets a poll he commissioned which shows fairly widespread disbelief in God and that 41% of respondents consider religion harmful. But I suspect that this shows that the kind of people who answer surveys on religion are less religious than the general population. The net is full of a lot of sad atheists.

Patience Wheatcroft on the button in the Telegraph, berating the ludicrous ACPO chief Ken Jones who "does not recognise" the broken society we live in. Meanwhile the polls suggest that the Brown Bounce may have peaked. The Weighted Moving Average is 34:39:16 I suspect that the Brown Bounce peaked at about 6.5% and in another 2 months we’ll be back to level pegging, which we where we were 2 months ago.

Finally the fall in Coalition Fatalities in Iraq continues for the 3rd successive month, and were it not for the 14 deaths in the helicopter accident it would have been the lowest for a year. Let us hope and pray that this fall continues.

Very interesting programme on Radio 4 about the Alexandria Process - never heard of it but clearly important!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Lake District, and starting The Book.

Back from a lovely holiday with C's parents and all their descendants, which of course includes all our descendants, in the Lake District. Elder Grandson completed his Stage 2 RYA sailing and also had his first taste of Kayaking and driving a little motor boat.

Initial soundings suggest that two major University presses seem very enthusiastic about my idea of a book based on the Article, and on Aug 25th I started work on the Book - I do hope that Colin can become enthused by this as well. The Book has the advantage that we can really develop the arguments and I'm making some progress on the chapter, Red, which acts as a philosophical exposition of the flavour of theism that I am putting forward. In a nutshell, the fundamental axiom seems to me to be:

R1 There exists an Ultimate Creator who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

which is a slightly long-winded and "philosophical" way of saying the earliest Christian Creed: "Jesus is Lord".

Private Eye has amusing parody of Dawkins "debunking" the practice of making a wish when you blow out birthday candles.